Couric makes her debut broadcast on CBS in 2006. (EPA )
Katie Couric has poise, good looks, smarts and the kind of warmth on camera that a lot of other news people would love to duplicate. She also had the distinction of serving as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" as it became stubbornly locked into its position as least favored of the three nightly network newscasts.
As Couric prepares to sign off Thursday night for the final time, one can't help but wonder what went wrong. Nothing more, it appears, than misplaced priorities, unrealistic expectations and an underestimation of how dangerous it can be to remake a venerable franchise.
In moving Couric into its celebrated anchor desk, CBS forgot that its most loyal viewers were less interested in a marquee star than in a stolid news brand. News executives aimed at broadening their audience when they should have been concerned, first, with preserving what they had. They bet that a ray of morning sunshine would appeal in the more steely evening landscape.
It's easy to pick apart those mistaken assumptions today, but the impending challenges seemed far less obvious before Couric took over in September 2006. Why wouldn't the network newscasts want to broaden their demographic, rather than passively watch viewers slowly march off to the great Nielsen household in the sky? Who wouldn't have thought Couric, longtime ratings champ as host of NBC's "Today" show, had a chance of transferring her appeal to the nighttime?
So CBS chief executive Les Moonves and the network set about selling Couric and, incidentally, the brand that was more dependent on hundreds of faceless producers and writers, along with a cadre of veteran correspondents. Even under an uber-authority like Walter Cronkite, an anchor's primary duty was to pitch to colleagues in the field, who filled the bulk of airtime.
"She fell victim to the warped emphasis we place on celebrity," said Judy Muller, a longtime correspondent at CBS and ABC and now a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. "There is this personality-driven anchor syndrome. In Britain they call them 'news readers' and that's about as it should be."
By bringing on Couric at a reported $15 million a year, CBS expected an older audience to accept a woman (unusual, though not unprecedented for evening news shows) who also was not a familiar face on the network and who initially headed up a newscast remade in her image. Producers worked hard to jazz up "CBS Evening News" in Couric's initial months, with more features, more interviews (a Couric strength) and guest commentaries.
"These audiences are a very tricky, fickle thing. The changes were perceived as a shock to the system," said one former CBS executive, who lived through the beginning of the Couric era. "The week she started, the tune-in was huge. And the drop-off was also huge after that. I don't think they were ever able to get them back."
As of last week, "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" led the nightly race with more than 9 million total viewers, compared with ABC's "World News With Diane Sawyer" at just under 8 million and the CBS newscast, lagging at 5.8 million. Despite popular perception that cable news dominates TV news, the network nightly news shows still draw substantially larger audiences than any single program on Fox, CNN or MSNBC.
The old saw about first impressions enduring became a harsh reality for CBS, whose audience seemed just fine, thank you, with its post-Dan Rather fill-in, the endlessly unflashy Bob Schieffer. A change-averse viewership doubtless greeted the initial formatting changes for Couric's "Evening News" as confirmation that "America's Sweetheart," straight from her sunny a.m. perch, didn't have the gravitas for the job.
Actually, those impressions had little to do with the newscast that emerged over Couric's five-year tenure. Independent network news analyst Andrew Tyndall said his tracking showed that CBS led the three nightly newscasts last year in time devoted to sober topics, such as U.S. foreign policy, economic coverage and the midterm elections.
"She leaves the 'CBS Evening News' with no problems in terms of delivery, story selection [and] reputation for hard news," Tyndall said.
Her series of interviews with Sarah Palin, in which the vice presidential candidate appeared evasive and under-informed, will doubtless go down as her single most memorable story.
As much as she sought the CBS job to forever banish her morning-lite persona, the 54-year-old Couric acknowledged when she announced her departure that the anchor desk has been a "pretty confining venue." She wants a new job, more in her "wheelhouse," where she can conduct long-form interviews. An announcement of her own syndicated daytime show is awaited.
CBS, meanwhile, will return to its own ranks for a successor. Scott Pelley, 53, has spent 22 years at CBS News and been best known in recent years for his reporting on "60 Minutes," still the most-watched news program on TV. Pelley has said he wants the nightly news to be driven by, er, news, not his personality or any new flourishes.
His most telling gesture prior to his June 6 start came when Pelley told his bosses that he would prefer his name be dropped from the "CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley." They told their fledgling anchor that Cronkite and all those who followed had their names in the title. So would he.
Still, Pelley had made his point. As much as possible, he wants his news show to be as little about him as possible.
So, in an era of endless opinion making and personality-driven reporting, a return to basics promises a certain retro allure.